Home and Design: In Rehoboth, an eco-friendly beach house that eschews seashore kitsch

June 22, 2011

After more than 30 years of renting and owning existing Rehoboth area getaways, Claudia Wiegand and Mark Kurth designed and built a new place near the shore. But their eco-friendly modernist dream home doesn’t look anything like their former cedar-shingle cottage or, for that matter, what many folks would consider a “typical beach house.”

At 4,000 square feet, the $1 million, three-level contemporary rises from one of the highest spots in Sussex County, 32 feet above sea level, on a heavily wooded quarter-acre lot overlooking the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. The home is sleek, stylish and nearly devoid of seashore kitsch, with nary a sculpted gull or flip-flop-shaped flyswatter in sight.

Many of the couple’s neighbors in the Canal Corkran development north of Route 1A, about a mile from the ocean, have built similarly non-traditional seashore getaways, resembling antebellum plantations, Frank Lloyd Wright prairie houses, Victorian confections or modernist geometrics.

De-beaching is a growing trend, according to Ed Albers, co-owner of the Design Center of Rehoboth. “People really want to be able to live in their home in a more classic, simple and sophisticated way,” Albers says. “Full-timers and part-timers alike don’t want their homes to have what I call ‘trite beach syndrome.’ ... We’re not putting in canisters of sand, jars of seashells or signs that say ‘To the beach.’ ” Instead, he says, owners “want more quality furnishings, nice artwork and well-appointed outdoor spaces.”

Those were certainly among Wiegand and Kurth’s desires. And, since their home’s completion last December, the couple, who have been shuttling between their Georgetown condo and their new Delaware digs, happily report coming close to nailing every item on their wish list. They’ve wound up with an environmentally sensitive dwelling that may not look like a traditional beach house but functions like one, with a comfortable, casual ambiance and plenty of space for entertaining and overnight guests.

“The feel, the light, the airiness, when we are on the patio for a party, it all just feels like what I wanted,” says Wiegand, 57, a financial strategy consultant. “I walk around and look for things that might make me say, ‘This is what I should have done,’ and there aren’t many.”

***

Wiegand and Kurth, 54, a consultant for Hewlett-Packard, share a contemporary sensibility, and building a home from the ground up allowed them to put to the test all their ideas about layout and scale, light and shade, public and private space, room flow and furnishings.

Though perhaps not overtly beachy, the house is sea-centric in its respect for the fragile marine environment. The owners and their team — home builder Jeff Garrison; Albers and his design partner, Michael Cusumano; and Wiegand’s daughter, Gabriella Jung, a San Francisco interior designer — went to great lengths to find stylish green construction materials and furnishings.

“We weren’t perfect by any means, but we tried to make sure that a lot of things were sourced within 200 miles of here,” Wiegand says. “I wanted to make the house as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible, so we started by siting it to get the most full-sun exposure in winter and the most shade in summer.”

Other green features included the home’s recycled-fiber exterior cladding and carpeting containing repurposed corn husks (see box).

“This is one of the greenest houses I’ve ever done,” says Garrison, a third-generation contractor who owns Garrison Homes in nearby Lewes. “I learned about a lot of materials I had never used before.”

But the couple’s personal environment was as much of a priority as the natural world they sought to protect. They envisioned seated dinners, large cocktail gatherings and visits from friends, family, aging parents and, perhaps, future grandchildren when designing the six-bedroom, 51/2 - bath structure.

Wiegand worked with several architects to develop her idea for a rather U-shaped building composed of three rectangular sections that would provide privacy for houseguests and owners alike. The largest section, built on three levels, contains the guest wing, with bedrooms, a home theater and gym. The owners’ section boasts a master bedroom with a wide balcony, a large, adjoining bathroom and a generous upstairs office for Kurth. The heart of the home is in the open “great room” center section. With ceilings that soar to 16 feet, it houses the kitchen, living and dining rooms on the main level and a garage below.

***

On a recent morning, Wiegand and Kurth happily conducted a house tour, starting with the front door painted the same rich yellow as the kitchen island, and tricked out with seven horizontal glass panels. Wiegand fell in love with a similar door while traveling in Zagreb, Croatia, and e-mailed photos to Garrison, who had it made locally.

The first stop is the guest bedroom on the main level, which is furnished simply with a chartreuse padded felt headboard and frame by Blu Dot. The carpeting — made with recycled corn husks in steely blue with a wood grain pattern — is in every bedroom in the house and in Kurth’s study because it feels good underfoot. The guest bath has a roll-in shower for visitors who might someday have mobility issues.

This section’s most eye-catching feature is the floating wooden staircase leading upstairs. Supported by a steel beam and protected by stainless steel railings and cables, it provides a nautical touch that contrasts with the wall painted a warm shade of paprika.

Just beyond the stairs on the main level, a “toast and coffee station” was built into an alcove, allowing guests to brew a cup and prep a bagel or muffin without rattling around in the kitchen and perhaps waking their hosts. The nearby powder room is a favorite among male visitors, Kurth says, because hanging on the wall next to the dual-flush toilet is a sleek, water-saving urinal.

The couple spend a lot of time relaxing in the guest section’s glassed-in porch, which overlooks the pool and patio. It is furnished with a comfy sofa, flat-panel TV, recycled rubber flooring and gas fireplace.

One of the upstairs guest rooms — reserved for Wiegand’s daughter when she comes east — includes a 20-foot-long balcony overlooking the canal. Another guest room has the only piece of antique furniture in the house, an imposing dresser the couple already owned and needed for storage. The cube’s lower level houses the cheery media room, which has a giant TV, two red leather chairs with ottomans, and snappy black and white geometric Flor carpet tiles. Natural light in both the media room and the gym, which are separated by a bathroom, comes from tall windows that open like doors, allowing the spaces to be classified as bedrooms. If a crowd is expected, out come inflatable beds.

But it is the center section, with a dramatic kitchen, and inviting sitting and dining areas that visitors find irresistible.

To keep the space from feeling cavernous, the ceiling was painted a much darker gray than the walls, to visually bring down the height. Light floods in from three sets of large windows on the street side of the house and from tall glass doors that open onto the pool patio on the other side.

The focal point of the public space is the Italian Snaidero kitchen that anchors one end. It is one of the few major items in the house that was in serious violation of the couple’s 200-mile sourcing goal. But Wiegand and Kurth say they can justify the transatlantic shipping of the charcoal gray cabinets and the glossy yellow storage island crowned by a stainless steel waterfall countertop: They are avid cooks who like to prepare scratch-made dinners for themselves and their friends, and throw cocktail parties for 30.

Ever the multi-tasker, Wiegand had a tiny office built into one kitchen cabinet. Open the door, and behold! An overhead TV, a writing surface, a laptop and a compact chair, “so I can do a little work while I’m cooking.”

Four swiveling chrome and white leather bar stools allow visitors to face either the kitchen or the sitting area, which features a sofa recycled from the couple’s old Rehoboth house and a large painting Wiegand thought never quite worked in their Georgetown condo.

It was Wiegand’s idea to delineate the sitting area with a quartet of classical, floor-to-ceiling columns: a simple Doric, a modified Doric, a more ornamental Ionic and a heavily embellished Corinthian. She laughs when she recalls the day one of Garrison’s subcontractors looked around the room, shook his head and asked the boss, “She couldn’t make up her mind which one she wanted, so she had you install one of each until she could decide?” Not even close. Wiegand planned it that way because she liked the way it looked. (The columns also constitute a subtle visual test for visitors.)

Balancing the horizontal lines of the counters at the kitchen end of the room is the long rosewood dining table at the other end. The six slightly Chinese-looking chairs were designed by Thom Filicia, formerly of TV’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and covered in a tropical print that suggests an exotic getaway. The host seats at either end of the table are bright red molded plastic. One of the home’s few possible seashore signifiers is a carved wooden fish on the dining table. “It’s from South Africa,” Wiegand says of the country that does, after all, have an impressive coastline.

The owners’ wing juts at an angle off the kitchen end of the public section. The master bedroom is dominated by another Blu Dot felt headboard and frame, this one a strong teal, with yellow accent pillows.

The master bath gives one the sense of being in a nature preserve, thanks to one large window inside the glass shower enclosure and another by the freestanding white oval bathtub.

Kurth’s office is upstairs above the master suite and provides one of the few unexpected jolts of color: multiple shades of blue stripes on the Formica-clad storage unit under a long blue counter that runs the length of the room. The pattern is repeated on bookshelves just outside the office, one of the other rare design elements that could be considered “beachy.”

After six months, Wiegand and Kurth have no regrets regarding their home’s unusual design and decor or its eco-friendly materials (everything is comfortable and functioning as it should). But they are second-guessing themselves on a couple of lifestyle issues: They wish they had installed two full ovens for easier entertaining and made the guest bedroom on the main level larger. Their final bit of hindsight, however, makes it clear they intend to stay: “As we age,” Wiegand says, “we might regret the lack of an elevator or a dumbwaiter from the garage.”

Annie Groer, a former Washington Post staffer, writes widely about politics, design and culture. She is at work on a memoir. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com .

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer and columnist specializing in politics, culture and design. She has also written for the New York Times, Town & Country, Washingtonian and More, and is at work on a memoir. Follow her @AnnieGroer.
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